By Brian Lafferty
September 17, 2011 (San Diego) – In the 1950s critics writing for the French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema came up with the Auteur Theory. Later propagated by American film critic Andrew Sarris, it stated that the director is the author of the film. It further goes on to assert that an author can leave a mark in each of his films to the point where someone can say, “That’s an Alfred Hitchcock film” or “That’s a John Ford film.”
A debate on the merits of the Auteur theory is too large in scope for a Blu-Ray review. But I will say that I largely disagree with it. While a director can leave a signature or two in his films, moviemaking has always been a collaborative medium. There is no one “author” of a film. Seeing movies like Good Will Hunting, now out on Blu-Ray, reinforces that notion.
Will Hunting is at janitor at MIT. He’s also incredibly smart; he easily solves a math equation that baffles the students of Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård). But he’s as troubled as he is intelligent, having been arrested multiple times. After another brush with the law, he faces prison time and only psychologist Sean Maguire (Academy Award winner Robin Williams) can guide him.
Damon’s performance is what I call “flash” based. Will is an everyman that shows flashes of untold intelligence, flashes of violent tendencies, flashes of vulnerability, and flashes of troublemaking. These flashes are scattered throughout.
Even though his everyman bits are engrossing, when the flashes appear they have varying emotional effects on a higher scale. When he’s vulnerable, we feel sad. When he talks formulas and math, we listen with the utmost admiration.
There was a period of time when almost every movie featuring Robin Williams just had to include a scene that let him go off on his famous mimicry shtick. These scenes were included even if the movie didn’t need them.
No matter how hard you look, Robin Williams doesn’t give so much as a single solitary wink. Sometimes he’s funny, as when he talks about his late wife passing gas. Sometimes he’s loud, as when he recalls Game 6 of the 1975 World Series, which he missed to be with her.
I never felt I watched Robin Williams. I saw instead a compassionate, understanding, and consoling man. Want proof? See the climactic breakthrough where he repeatedly tells Will, “It’s not your fault.” It’s hard for Will to hear. He keeps saying he knows, but he really doesn’t. Soon it becomes as penetrating to us as it is to Will.
The script was penned by Damon and Ben Affleck, who has a supporting role as Will’s best friend. The screenplay, which won an Oscar, contains fully incisive, constructive, and statuette-worthy dialogue free of psychobabble
Director Gus Van Sant and his crew match the performances and writing with an acute sense of visual style. He and cinematographer Jean-Yves Escoffier favor the wide-angle lens. The results include many deep focus shots of the university halls that visually illustrate Will’s loneliness and isolation.
Van Sant also likes to move the camera. The movement is always subtle and minimal. The movements in Good Will Hunting are balanced with quick, but non-chaotic editing that is unpredictable in shot choices. Van Sant uses many different angles and distances that are cut in an unusual rhythm, allowing for full engagement instead of detachment from the multitude of dialogue.
Production designer Melissa Stewart (who previously collaborated with Van Sant on Even Cowgirls Get the Blues and To Die For) and art director James McAteer waste no space in each frame. The sets and props fully surround, but don’t envelop the actors, so there’s always something to hook you during the dialogue-heavy sequences.
A Lionsgate Home Video release. Director: Gus Van Sant. Screenplay: Matt Damon and Ben Affleck. Cinematography: Jean-Yves Escoffier. Original Music: Danny Elfman. Cast: Matt Damon, Robin Williams, Ben Affleck, Stellan Skarsgård, and Minnie Driver. 126 minutes. Rated R.